This article and interview originally appeared on the Between the Lines website and is reprinted here with permission. Visit Between the Lines for more compelling reporting and to listen to this interview.
Nationwide, it’s estimated that between 30 and 40 percent of food grown in the U.S. is wasted, while millions go hungry. Moreover, the environmental impact of food production is second only to the burning of fossil fuels in generating greenhouse gas emissions that are wrecking the climate.
As these statistics have become better known, more people have taken action to reduce food waste from seed to dining table. One project in New Haven, Connecticut, began as a family-run operation more than three years ago. Haven’s Harvest, as it’s known, just had its formal kick-off in late January at an event that brought together volunteers and some of the agencies they serve.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus attended the coming-out party for Haven’s Harvest, which was founded by Lori Martin, who has involved her home-schooled children in the project as drivers, schedulers and tech gurus. In its three years of operation, the soon-to-be-certified non-profit has recruited scores of volunteers who have rescued 768,000 pounds of food, providing more than half-a-million meals to individuals and families. After the group’s recent kick-off, Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Martin and her son Caleb Martin-Mooney at their home, where they talked about their food recovery and distribution program, Haven’s Harvest food recovery program.
LORI MARTIN: We started a Trader Joe’s run rive days a week, I think, initially, and it was the two of us, hauling food around, trying to figure out where it could go.
BETWEEN THE LINES: So this was about three-and-a-half years ago. So now you have this empire of food rescue, where you have 148 volunteers and pretty much an exact match of food donors and food receiving sites – 78 food donors and 77 receiving sites, and I think that’s not an accident, right, Lori?
LORI MARTIN: It’s true. Those numbers came up organically, but it turns out that’s our magic ratio is 2 to 1, so two volunteers to receiving sites and donors. And as we take on food donors then we look around that area to keep the food in a tight radius, to find new receiving sites and that’s what we have done. We initially thought we would reach out to places that are traditional places of where people in need need food – soup kitchens and food pantries – and we were so surprised that those folks were not open to taking the food from Trader Joe’s. It didn’t fit their model of feeding folks; it didn’t fit their needs exactly because the quantities were unknown and inconsistent. So then we realized, well, this food is still amazing and we need to find a way to share it, so that’s how we began to look for faith communities.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Who wants to tell me a little bit about the amazing food? What kind of food were you packing into your vehicle every day?
CALEB MARTIN-MOONEY: So from Trader Joe’s specifically, we get these massive trash bags full of bread, usually five to eight trash bags every time we go, depends. We also get pastry and sushi…
LORI MARTIN: … produce and meat and dairy. We get all the food either, as it didn’t sell quickly, because they have a quick turnover model, or things that have just come to their sell-by dates, so we get all of that. Initially, we thought we’d get about 15 cases of food per day, but on average we’ve been getting about 22 cases per day, and then these large bags packed with different kinds of bread products – could be tortillas, muffins, English muffins, all sorts of things.
One of the things that’s come up in the last few years is, is our mission to feed poor people or is it to recover food? And at the time I would always say it’s difficult to say which, because certainly New Haven has such great disparities economically, that I definitely wanted people who didn’t have good, convenient, consistent access to food to get this great food we’re recovering, and I’m totally passionate about the environment, and I don’t think food should be wasted. At this point, though, with the launch of Haven’s Harvest, it’s definitely an environmental mission, so our mission is to recover food, so good food doesn’t get wasted, and then the by-product of that is that people get fed.
BETWEEN THE LINES: In 2018, over three-quarters of a million pounds of food was recovered in the greater New Haven area, not just the city, but surrounding towns as well, and just over 400,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions prevented. People might wonder how is recovering food preventing carbon dioxide emissions.
LORI MARTIN: So, if we look at the food recovery pyramid that the USDA and the EPA put out a number of years ago, at the top of the food pyramid is to simply reduce the food produced so you’re not producing acres and acres of food, perhaps, that will never get used; and the next part of reducing food waste is to feed people, and then below that is feed animals and below that is fuel, and then making compost, and the last thing that gets done with food is to throw it away. The way I see excess food in all its forms is that it’s a resource, and so if we do nothing with it and it ends up in a landfill then we are creating a huge environmental problem. So to do anything above those steps – compost, fuel, feed animals or people – we’re doing something and we can recognize it as a resource.
When it ends up in a landfill, having done nothing good with it, then it becomes a huge hazard, and that’s where it’s producing carbon dioxide emissions, but also methane. So methane gets produced, just like cows produce methane, we produce methane, so it gets produced when it sits in a landfill, and we don’t necessarily capture that methane to produce fuel from there.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Are you hooked into a national movement for food recovery, because I know this happens in other places?
LORI MARTIN: We do, in that we are still using the app and are still partners with Food Rescue U.S., and they now have about 17 sites around the country, so there is tapping into the information and wisdom that we’re all gaining as we do the work.